Where Is the Library At?

The city’s three-step plan for a world-class library has always seemed sensible enough. (1) Stay out of old department stores. (2) Round up the world’s greatest architects. (3) Stick up their best idea.

Yet the American Institute of Architects continues to say nay. A year and a half ago, architect Jack Hartray of the Chicago chapter even suggested building nothing at all.

“It is a great mistake to equate quality with novelty,” wrote Hartray. “A new building, by one of the more prestigious architects of the age, can be no more than a personal response to a confused period in cultural history.” Even from “an architect who was committed to respect our history and the context of the city, we could hope for little more than an abstracted update of the building we already have.”

In other words, stay in the Goldblatt’s building and be glad you’ve got it.

Charles Nicodemus remembers the Hartray report. It appeared as the Sun-Times, spurred by Nicodemus’s probing, had driven City Hall to the brink of declaring the Goldblatt’s deal deader than conversational Latin.

“They put out a report that was one of the most inane things I or other reporters have ever seen,” Nicodemus told us. “They said a new building would be a reflection of the troubled times of the era it was built in. Their behavior was so bizarre that when we saw them start to raise questions about the process, some of us, if only subliminally, saw them as bad losers.”

Which might not have been fair, Nicodemus allowed, as the AIA seems to have raised “reasonable objections” to the present design competition. But the Sun-Times viewed these with a “jaundiced eye.” More to the point, its crusade was over. The Sun-Times continues to cover the library, after a fashion, but “the same intensity hasn’t been there and the same devotion to the story hasn’t been there.”

At Nicodemus’s paper, the skepticism of ’86 gave way to the credulity of ’87. An early editorial envisioned “internationally acclaimed architects” competing for the commission. As recently as December 1, an editorial proposing that the library be named for Harold Washington took it for granted that it would “match the world-class standing enjoyed by Chicago’s other key cultural institutions.”

We asked Library Commissioner John Duff what “world-class library” is supposed to mean. He answered with superlatives. Our new library, containing 700,000 square feet of space and 85 miles of shelves, will be “the largest public library in the world in unrestricted operation.” Its computer-driven information systems will be on the “cutting edge.”

But two weeks ago, a little air leaked out of the general euphoria. That’s when the deadline passed for entering the competition. At the start, the competition’s “professional adviser,” Edward Wundram, blithely predicted up to 300 entries would pour in from all over the world. There were six.

The AIA blames the ground rules. The city’s “design/build” approach–chosen to control costs and get the building up by the start of 1991–finds each team of developers and architects working from a thousand pages of specs to come up with a design that can be brought in for the $140 million the city has to spend. One plan will be chosen. If that team goes over budget it must eat the losses.

This approach rules out architects who can’t hook up with developers, the AIA said, or can’t afford to enter (the consolation prizes are $100,000, while a finished design could take a million dollars to develop). The AIA objected to the lack of contact architects and client would have with each other as the library was taking shape on paper; and they protested the sway that developers would hold over designers. Mies van der Rohe said God is in the details; the AIA foresaw developers playing fast and loose with those details, cutting corners to protect their profit margin.

And Jack Hartray believes this “confused period” is still with us. “I think this probably is not the world’s finest hour. Stylistically, there’s a great deal of confusion now. Our best public buildings now are the ones we’re getting through preservation, rather than new buildings.”

The six entries do involve some impressive names in architecture, among them Thomas Beeby, who designed the wonderful Sulzer Regional Library, and the inimitable Helmut Jahn. We presume all the contenders think they can deal with confusion. Not only is there Hartray’s zeitgeist, there are the weird specifics of the South Loop site. It’s three times as long as it is wide and consists of two plots–the block south of Van Buren between State and Plymouth Court, and an L-shaped half-block north of Van Buren. Between these two plots runs an el line that the library presumably will straddle.

It’ll be known as the Harold Washington Library Center. We’ll be able to boast Chicago has the world’s finest “library center” with trains running through it. Beyond that, we have our trepidations.


“How come a couple of old horse traders like you and me,” the president chuckled, “are still dealing on a last-name basis?”

The Soviet leader also laughed. “We have a saying in our country,” he said. “‘A good patronymic is a fine thing but sometimes it is better to have a cabbage.'”

The president shook his head. “Well, Nancy says it’s a small world. Seems to me we say practically the same thing here.”

The Soviet leader waited.

“Maybe we don’t,” said the president. “Anyway, I hope you won’t mind if I call you Mikhail.”

“And I shall call you Dutch,” said the Red boss, kissing his adversary on both cheeks.

“No, I don’t think so,” the president said. “The conservative lobby would crucify me if we got that familiar.”

“Ronald, then?” said the Red leader.

The president rubbed his chin. “I wish Nancy was here. You see, in my culture Ronald is–well, it’s kind of a silly name. And as long as I can’t be sure you’re not laughing up your sleeve, I’m not going to sign this treaty.”

“Very well, Mr. President. To me, you are good old Ronnie.”

It was settled.

“OK, Mikhail, so what have we got?” The president picked up the thousand-page document and leafed through it.

“It’s a doozy,” he said.

“They don’t come any fatter,” the first secretary agreed.

“We must make peace,” the president stated solemnly. “We owe that much to the dead.” He’d been briefed on the Russian’s sentiments.

“We owe it to the unborn,” said the first secretary, equally well briefed on the president’s.

The president wanted to go over the treaty one more time.

“Now we’re just talking about intermediate range missiles, aren’t we? Not ICBMs?”


“Not tactical nuclear weapons?”


“Not the SDI?”


“Boy, I don’t know,” said the president. “This reminds me of the one about the Frenchman, the rabbi, and the colored gentleman who were all trapped in an elevator.”

“That is amazing, Ronnie!” exclaimed the first secretary. “We have the very same story in our country. Except it is not an elevator; it is a plateful of blintzes.”

The president picked up a Parker pen.

“Well, here goes nothing,” he said.

The Soviet leader leaned forward expectantly.

“I just thought of something,” said the president, putting down the pen. “Dollars to doughnuts no one is ever going to use nukes anyway. So let’s eliminate conventional arms instead!”

“An interesting idea,” said the Soviet leader.

“Did you ever see Hellcats of the Navy?” the president went on. “There’s a picture that would open some eyes in the Soviet Union! Conventional weapons can be just plain awful.”

The Red leader seemed to ponder this insight. “On the other hand, Ronnie,” he began slowly, “our pretty wives will want to know, what were you men doing all day?”

“Hasn’t that been a cat fight!” the president exclaimed affectionately. He glanced at his watch. “Boy, it’ll be hot tongue and cold shoulder at dinner tonight if we don’t accomplish anything.”

He wrote his signature with a bold hand. His Soviet counterpart followed.

“Ahhh the ladies,” sighed the president. “You can’t make peace with them and you can’t make peace without them.”

“C’est la vie,” said the Russian.

“La vee,” the president replied obligingly. “But what does that have to do with the price of eggs?”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Bruce Powell.